A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Libraries in an Artificially Intelligent World

by on February 11, 2016

Artificial intelligence (AI) is perhaps most familiar to the general public thanks to Hollywood’s generous incorporation of this concept into movie plots—Blade Runner, Chappie, and Transcendence are just a few examples. We see artificial intelligence in novels too (many of which are later adapted for the big screen). For example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an artificial being with intuition, while Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot by explores the relationship between AI and humans.

According to Merriam-Webster, artificial intelligence is “an area of computer science that deals with giving machines the ability to seem like they have human intelligence.”[1] In short, the goal of AI is to make technology smart.

Now AI is increasingly slipping into everyday life for the general public, not just movie and novel plots.[2] Siri is perhaps the most famous AI application, but there are many more. IBM’s Watson and Amazon’s Echo are just two examples. In ways that we don’t always notice, AI passively helps us in our daily lives. Many finance companies use neural networks to identify fraudulent activity.[3] These examples learn from the user to improve responses. For example, Siri learns from the users’ individual speech pattern. Through use, the devices return more individualized results. Credit card companies learn normal behavior patterns for customers and identify questionable transactions that deviate from the individual’s pattern.

With many AI applications focused on delivering information to the user, on face, it can appear that AI is a challenge to libraries. In some ways it is. If Siri can tell me the tallest building in the world, I don’t need to visit my local library. Google Maps can quickly re-route me when I’m in an unfamiliar city and encounter construction. In this circumstance I don’t need to consult a print map or atlas.

What AI gives libraries is the opportunity to shift focus. The way we navigate the information architecture is changing. AI gives us useful shortcuts to apply this knowledge and produce better outcomes. Libraries focus on access to content and application of knowledge. We already see evidence of this shift toward application with many libraries developing MakerSpace capabilities. These organizations are positioning themselves to take advantage of technological tools by fostering their use.

Additionally, what is lacking is the human connection. Inherent in AI’s name is that the intelligence is artificial, not human. Libraries can connect people to information and, more importantly, to other people. A book group connects patrons with a similar interest. Hobby groups act similarly. We see these connections being made daily in public libraries.

Overall, the value proposition for public libraries is shifting. Access to collections remains important, but how that access is achieved is changing. Libraries can capitalize on the value of AI to expedite some processes, freeing up finite resources to focus on enriching the public library experience for patrons.


1Artificial Intelligence,” Merriam-Webster, accessed January 15, 2016.

2 Mike Elgan, “When Artificial Intelligence is Everywhere, All the Time,” Computerworld (2015). Accessed January 15, 2016, .

3 Raghavendra Patidar and Lokesh Sharma, “Credit Card Fraud Detection using Neural Network,” International Journal of Soft Computing and Engineering 1, no. ncaI2011 (2011): 32.

Tags: , ,